Canyonlands In A Day: How To Make The Most Of One Day In Canyonlands National Park

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The first few times I visited Canyonlands, I liked it but I didn’t love it. But now, after finally getting to hike more than the Mesa Arch Trail, I love it. And while I wasn’t usually limited to one day in Canyonlands, I know a lot of people are.

So that’s what were doing today: making the best one day Canyonlands itinerary out there. I finally felt like I could write this now that I’ve hiked more there. It’s a good mix of hiking and overlooks to make sure it’s a great day.

I’ve hiked three of the five trails on this list but the other two are top of the list for my next trip there, whenever that ends up being. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts and favorite hikes in the park.

Putting this together is just making me want to go back to Canyonlands even more than I already wanted to. Hopefully this plan of what to see in Canyonlands in one day is as helpful as I think it is.

White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

By now, I’ve been to Canyonlands three or four times and still have a ton of things I want to do there. There are tons of great hikes here to go on your national park bucket list and you’ll be able to do quite a few of the shorter ones with just one day in Canyonlands.

I’m surprised it took me so long to hike to more than Mesa Arch which I’ve done twice now, I think. I did visit The Needles district a couple of times and the Orange Cliffs in The Maze once, too.

White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

Can you see Canyonlands in one day?

Yes! You won’t be able to see absolutely everything but you could see quite a bit of Island in the Sky in one day. If you get up early, spend the whole day in the park, and don’t mind a lot of hiking, you’ll be able to cover quite a bit of the park.

So, how long do you need to visit Canyonlands, really? I would say two days in Island in the Sky would let you do a ton of hiking and view-enjoying. Or you could do one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles District if you really want to see more of the park.

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

Can you see Arches and Canyonlands in one day?

Yes but you’ll really only have half a day in Canyonlands and half a day in Arches. You won’t be able to hike much at all in either, mostly just have time for overlooks and really short walks.

It’s possible but I would try and plan one day for each if I could. You could make visiting both Canyonlands and Arches in one day on a quick weekend trip to Moab if you had to, you just won’t be able to see as much.

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

How much is Canyonlands?

The entrance fee for Canyonlands is $30 per vehicle for seven days. If you plan to visit Arches and another park on your Utah road trip though, the national park pass is totally worth it.

National Park Pass + Other National Park Deals

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

Best time to visit Canyonlands National Park

I think fall and winter are the best times to visit Canyonlands, personally. Summer can get very hot which makes hiking more difficult and more miserable. Spring can be windy but I’d still visit then over summer.

I would avoid weekends (in summer) and holidays, official holidays and school holidays like spring break. I would also check for Jeep Week in the spring and expect it to be busier then as well, at least in the town of Moab itself.

White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

Where is Canyonlands National Park?

The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is 32 miles from Moab, a 40 minute drive. It will take longer to actually get into the park and if it’s really busy, there may be a wait to even get in the park.

What to see in Canyonlands in one day

I’m going to list this itinerary for one day in Canyonlands in the order I would recommend doing it, starting nice and early. One thing to note, is that I hate when the sun is blasting in my eyes so it’s basically planned around that.

Instead of starting the day at Mesa Arch, I’m ending it there. It’s basically the west side of the road (right on your way in) in Island in the sky in the morning and the east side of the road (left on your way in) in the afternoon.

This visit to Canyonlands in one day will have lots of hiking but it won’t have anything strenuous (like the Gooseberry Trail.) It is a lot of shorter hikes that can always be switched around or out for a longer hike.

White Rim Road Canyonlands
Thanks father!

Shafer Trail Overlook

This is the best way to start your one day in Canyonlands because it shares a parking lot with the visitor center. If you’re starting before the visitor center opens, you can always just stop and check this out on its own since it’s a quick stop.

From here, you can see the switchbacks of Shafer Trail going down into the canyon. Shafer Trail is part of White Rim Road, this is just the beginning of it.

You could also end your day here, just stopping here on your way out. I think it’s a great view no matter the time of day. There isn’t really a trail out to this, just a rocky area you can walk around.

Upheaval Dome

Start your day off not long after the sun and head over to Upheaval Dome for the first hike. There are a couple of theories on the creation of Upheaval Dome: a salt dome or an impact crater.

Hiking to the first overlook, is 0.6 miles round-trip and to the second, it’s just 1.2 miles round-trip. There is about 115 feet of elevation gain to each one (as far as I can tell from this brochure) so I would say under 300 for sure.

The park website says it’s moderate but it seems like more of an easy hike to me. Then again, this is one of the ones I haven’t done yet. At the first overlook you’ll have a view of the crater and the second will be of the crater and Upheaval Canyon.

Whale Rock

Next up, on the same road as Upheaval Dome, is the easy Whale Rock hike. This is a 0.8 mile round-trip hike up a rock that looks like a whale. It’s a slickrock walk and feels a little steep but it’s not bad at all.

This is a nice walk with good views from the top. I won’t lie, it’s not the most thrilling hike in the park but it’s easy, doesn’t take too long, and is right along the main road. It’s also not a busy stop.

If you just have one day at Canyonlands and want to take out a hike, I would take out Whale Rock. It’s not bad but the others are better.

Aztec Butte

Just past Whale Rock is Aztec Butte, the other hike on the list that I didn’t do but would love to next time. This is a moderate hike with 222 feet of elevation gain.

You can see granaries on this trail, a type of structure seen in a lot of ruins in the area. It’s also a good trail for views that are a little more underrated than the ones on this list since it’s not a stop-and-see overlook.

Green River Overlook

The Green River Overlook is probably one of the most iconic views in Utah. From here, you can see White Rim Road, The Maze District, and the Green River 1,300 feet below.

This is an easy turnoff of the road to Upheaval Dome. It’s also a great place to enjoy sunset if you want to switch around the order of sights and activities I listed. There is a 0.2 mile walk out to the overlook.

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

Murphy Point Trail

From the Green River Overlook, you’ll take a right back out on the main road and head to the Murphy Point trailhead. This is a small parking area (very small) on the right side of the road.

The Murphy Point Trail is a great slightly longer hike, the longest one on this list. It’s 3.4 miles with just 147 feet of elevation gain and might be one of the best easy hikes in Utah.

It’s a pretty flat trail that is easy to follow and brings you to stunning canyon views. We did this hike on our last visit and I loved it!

If you want to see Canyonlands in a day but still do a longer hike, this is the perfect choice because it’s longer but it’s not difficult. Plus, the views are great and it’s not very busy.

Grand View Point Overlook

At the southernmost point of Island in the Sky you’ll find the Grand View Point Overlook, probably the other most impressive view in Canyonlands. And for good reason.

There is a short paved sidewalk to the overlook where you can see the Abajo Mountains in the distance, the White Rim Road below, and both the Maze and Needles districts of Canyonlands.

There is an additional mile-long hike to a second viewpoint. This is a common spot for ranger-led geology talks in the spring, summer, and fall.

White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

White Rim Overlook trail

Next up is the White Rim Overlook Trail, a great short but not too short hike that I would say is a must-do if you’re trying to experience Canyonlands in a day. This is also where the Gooseberry Trail is if you plan to do that.

It’s a quiet trail, or at least it was in mid-December, with amazing views at the end. It’s an easy trail to follow and not too long. It’s 1.8 miles with just 160 feet of elevation gain.

I think this would be a great place to enjoy the sunset where you get to see the clouds turn pink over the La Sal Mountains across the canyon. But I hate the sun blasting in my eyes at sunset, I would rather look the other direction because I think it looks better.

canyonlands island in the sky moab utah

Buck Canyon Overlook

This is a great quick stop and you don’t need much more than ten minutes here. It’s right on the main road between White Rim Overlook and Mesa Arch trailheads.

Like most of the overlooks, you can see White Rim Road below and the La Sal mountains across the canyon. It’s a similar view to Mesa Arch but a little different, so it’s worth the quick stop to check it out.

mesa arch canyonlands national park

Mesa Arch hike

Now for the Canyonlands crown jewel: Mesa Arch. This hike is most popular for sunrise but that just means it will be super busy. You can find pictures of rows of photographers lined up with their tripods for the exact same sunrise shot.

No shame in that but we hiked here around sunset and only had one other person there. Plus, like I’ve said, the sun won’t be blasting in your eyes then. I’m sure it’s usually a little busier than that at sunset but I don’t think it will be like sunrise.

If you do want to do the Mesa Arch hike at sunrise, you can always just reverse this list or move this up first and do it in order from there. It’s an easy 0.7 mile loop with just 88 feet of elevation gain.

And as hyped as this trail is, it’s worth it. It’s a great view. You can see the La Sal Mountains and some pretty great rock formations from the arch. You are not supposed to walk on the arch though for safety and preservation reasons.

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

Other things to do if you have more than one day in Canyonlands National Park

Hike the Gooseberry Trail

I mentioned this earlier, but the Gooseberry Trail is a great choice if you want to do a difficult hike in Canyonlands. It goes from Island in the Sky down to the White Rim Road below. Just remember, it’s easier to hike down than back up.

Drive to the Needles Overlook

I haven’t done this yet and I’m actually really surprised about that. This is an hour drive from Moab and looks pretty cool! I know my mom loved this stop.

newspaper rock canyonlands

See Newspaper Rock

This is a great easy drive and involves no hiking. It’s a rock on the side of the road on the way to The Needles District covered in petroglyphs! It’s a great stop and doesn’t take long to see. It’s a 54 minute drive from Moab, 27 minutes from Wilson Arch.

Hike in The Needles District

The 5.4 mile hike to the Chesler Park Overlook is a great option. If you want to go backpacking in Canyonlands, the Chesler Park Loop is a great choice.

Stop at Wilson Arch

This isn’t actually in the park but it’s right on the side of Highway 191 and easy enough to stop at if you’re driving out to The Needles Overlook, Newspaper Rock, or The Needles District. You can hike up under the arch.

Murphy Point trail canyonlands utah

Drive the White Rim Road

If you have two or three days in Canyonlands, experience driving on difficult desert roads, and want a remote adventure, driving the White Rim Road is a great option. It takes a couple of days and requires experience with 4WD and rough desert roads.

Hike to False Kiva

This is a moderate 1.9 mile hike to a ruin in an alcove from the Upheaval Dome parking area. You used to be able to go right up to the ruin but you can’t anymore for preservation purposes.

White Rim Road
Thanks father!

Tips for your one day itinerary at Canyonlands National Park

  • Get started early, especially in the summer. It doesn’t get as busy as Arches but it can get busy.
  • Have some backup hikes in mind just in case these (or others you choose as priority) are too busy.
  • Choose a few hikes as priority and do those first. Whether it’s these or others you’d rather do is up to you, of course.
  • You can always add some pictographs and Dead Horse Point State Park to your one day in Canyonlands if you want to see some other things nearby.
  • Bring lots of water, snacks, and maybe a picnic lunch so you don’t have to leave in the middle of the day to eat or anything. It’s not far to Moab, but it’s far enough to take up a good portion of the day when you only have one day at Canyonlands.
  • Canyonlands is a little further from Moab than Arches is, so be sure to plan for that extra driving time. It’s not like it’s a really long drive, especially in Utah miles (everything feels farther apart and miles feel longer here.)
  • If you just have one day at Canyonlands, plan ahead at least a little bit. It is fun to go in with no plan though, too, so I get that. Even just know a hike or two can be helpful.
  • You do not need a 4WD or high-clearance vehicle to do any of these activities. Island in the Sky is all paved. You would need one for parts of The Needles, all of The Maze, and White Rim Road.
  • Be very careful walking near cliff edges. People do/have died here from falling and I don’t want that to be you.
White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

What to bring hiking in Canyonlands

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.  Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are, time of day, and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Good hiking shoes – If you’re hiking when it’s warmer, Chacos will be good.  If it’s fall, muddy, or a little cooler out, you’ll want closed toe shoes.

White rim overlook trail Canyonlands Utah

Have you been to Canyonlands? What did you think of it? What did you do there? Do you want to go? What would you recommend for one day in Canyonlands National Park?

2 thoughts on “Canyonlands In A Day: How To Make The Most Of One Day In Canyonlands National Park

  1. Thanks for the great tips about Canyonlands NP. I haven’t been to Islands in the Sky in more years than we should count, but I will vouch for the Needles. It’s more remote, so a bit less crowded, and the trails are a lot of up and down. But the scenery is magnificent!

    I definitely second thoughts about summer. The heat in those canyon walls can get quite oppressive. Lots of water, a wide hat and sunscreen are musts even in the fall or spring. Canyonlands is atva relatively high altitude, so even when its cool, the sun can be intense.

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